Notes on travel from the Mediterranean’s sharpest observer
Few men have traveled as wisely as Lawrence Durrell. Born in India, he lived in Corfu as a young man, enjoying salt air, cobalt water, and an unfettered bohemian lifestyle. Over the following decades, he rambled around the Mediterranean, making homes in Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece. Each time he moved, he asked himself why he felt compelled to travel. In this book, he gives his answer. Durrell knew that the wise traveler looks not for pleasure, education, or landmarks, but is hungry for a sense of place—the element of a landscape, city, or nation that makes its people who they are. In this anthology, passages from Durrell’s classic Mediterranean writings are paired with observations on other lands. His writing is poetic, lush, and achingly clear, for this was a man who truly saw the world.
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About the Author
Born in Jalandhar, British India, in 1912 to Indian-born British colonials, Lawrence Durrell was a critically hailed and beloved novelist, poet, humorist, and travel writer best known for the Alexandria Quartet novels, which were ranked by the Modern Library as among the greatest works of English literature in the twentieth century. A passionate and dedicated writer from an early age, Durrell’s prolific career also included the groundbreaking Avignon Quintet, whose first novel, Monsieur (1974), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and whose third novel, Constance (1982), was nominated for the Booker Prize. He also penned the celebrated travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957), which won the Duff Cooper Prize. Durrell corresponded with author Henry Miller for forty-five years, and Miller influenced much of his early work, including a provocative and controversial novel, The Black Book (1938). Durrell died in France in 1990.
Read an Excerpt
The Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader
A Middle Western Legend
By Clint Willis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Lawrence Durrell Estate
All rights reserved.
SPIRIT OF PLACE
Lawrence Durrell found his spirit in the islands and countries of the Mediterranean: Corfu, Egypt, Rhodes, Cyprus, Sicily, Provence. What does that mean—to find your spirit in a place? Durrell explored that question in a 1960 essay, which ran in the New York Times Magazine.
Landscape and Character(1960)
'You write', says a friendly critic in Ohio, 'as if the landscape were more important than the characters.' If not exactly true, this is near enough the mark, for I have evolved a private notion about the importance of landscape, and I willingly admit to seeing 'characters' almost as functions of a landscape. This has only come about in recent years after a good deal of travel—though here again I doubt if this is quite the word, for I am not really a 'travel-writer' so much as a 'residence-writer'. My books are always about living in places, not just rushing through them. But as you get to know Europe slowly, tasting the wines, cheeses and characters of the different countries you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all—the spirit of place. Just as one particular vineyard will always give you a special wine with discernible characteristics so a Spain, an Italy, a Greece will always give you the same type of culture—will express itself through the human being just as it does through its wild flowers. We tend to see 'culture' as a sort of historic pattern dictated by the human will, but for me this is no longer absolutely true. I don't believe the British character, for example, or the German has changed a jot since Tacitus first described it; and so long as people keep getting born Greek or French or Italian their culture-productions will bear the unmistakable signature of the place.
And this, of course, is the target of the travel-writer; his task is to isolate the germ in the people which is expressed by their landscape. Strangely enough one does not necessarily need special knowledge for the job, though of course a knowledge of language is a help. But how few they are those writers! How many can write a Sea and Sardinia or a Twilight in Italy to match these two gems of D. H. Lawrence? When he wrote them his Italian was rudimentary. The same applies to Norman Douglas' Fountains in the Sand—one of the best portraits of North Africa.
We travel really to try and get to grips with this mysterious quality of 'Greekness' or 'Spanishness'; and it is extraordinary how unvaryingly it remains true to the recorded picture of it in the native literature: true to the point of platitude. Greece, for example, cannot have a single real Greek left (in the racial sense) after so many hundreds of years of war and resettlement; the present racial stocks are the fruit of countless invasions. Yet if you want a bit of real live Aristophanes you only have to listen to the chaffering of the barrow-men and peddlers in the Athens Plaka. It takes less than two years for even a reserved British resident to begin using his fingers in conversation without being aware of the fact. But if there are no original Greeks left what is the curious constant factor that we discern behind the word 'Greekness'? It is surely the enduring faculty of self-expression inhering in landscape. At least I would think so as I recall two books by very different writers which provide an incomparable nature-study of the place. One is Mani by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and the other Miller's Colossus of Maroussi.
I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the country with Tartars, and within two generations discover, to your astonishment, that the national characteristics were back at norm—the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and the passionate individualism: even though their noses were now flat. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistrot. He may not be able to formulate it very clearly to himself in literary terms, but he will taste the unmistakable keen knife-edge of happiness in the air of Paris: the pristine brilliance of a national psyche which knows that art is as important as love or food. He will not be blind either to the hard metallic rational sense, the irritating coeur raisonnable of the men and women. When the French want to be malins, as they call it, they can be just as we can be when we stick our toes in over some national absurdity.
Yes, human beings are expressions of their landscape, but in order to touch the secret springs of a national essence you need a few moments of quiet with yourself. Truly the intimate knowledge of landscape, if developed scientifically, could give us a political science—for half the political decisions taken in the world are based on what we call national character. We unconsciously acknowledge this fact when we exclaim, 'How typically Irish' or 'It would take a Welshman to think up something like that'. And indeed we all of us jealously guard the sense of minority individuality in our own nations—the family differences. The great big nations like say the Chinese or the Americans present a superficially homogeneous appearance; but I've noticed that while we Europeans can hardly tell one American from another, my own American friends will tease each other to death at the lunch-table about the intolerable misfortune of being born in Ohio or Tennessee—a recognition of the validity of place which we ourselves accord to the Welshman, Irishman and Scotsman at home. It is a pity indeed to travel and not get this essential sense of landscape values. You do not need a sixth sense for it. It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. 'I am watching you—are you watching yourself in me?' Most travellers hurry too much. But try just for a moment sitting on the great stone omphalos, the navel of the ancient Greek world, at Delphi. Don't ask mental questions, but just relax and empty your mind. It lies, this strange amphora-shaped object, in an overgrown field above the temple. Everything is blue and smells of sage. The marbles dazzle down below you. There are two eagles moving softly softly on the sky, like distant boats rowing across an immense violet lake.
Ten minutes of this sort of quiet inner identification will give you the notion of the Greek landscape which you could not get in twenty years of studying ancient Greek texts. But having got it, you will at once get all the rest; the key is there, so to speak, for you to turn. After that you will not be able to go on a shopping expedition in Athens without running into Agamemnon or Clytemnestra—and often under the same names. And if you happen to go to Eleusis in springtime you will come upon more than one blind Homer walking the dusty roads. The secret is identification. If you sit on the top of the Mena House pyramid at sunset and try the same thing (forgetting the noise of the donkey-boys, and all the filthy litter of other travellers—old cartons and Coca-Cola bottles): if you sit quite still in the landscape-diviner's pose—why, the whole rhythm of ancient Egypt rises up from the damp cold sand. You can hear its very pulse tick. Nothing is strange to you at such moments—the old temples with their death-cults, the hieroglyphs, the long slow whirl of the brown Nile among the palm-fringed islets, the crocodiles and snakes. It is palpably just as it was (its essence) when the High Priest of Ammon initiated Alexander into the Mysteries. Indeed the Mysteries themselves are still there for those who might seek initiation—the shreds and shards of the Trismegistic lore still being studied and handed on by small secret sects. Of course you cannot arrange to be initiated through a travel agency! You would have to reside and work your way in through the ancient crust—a tough one—of daily life. And how different is the rhythm of Egypt to that of Greece! One isn't surprised by the story that the High Priest at Thebes said contemptuously: 'You Greeks are mere children.' He could not bear the tireless curiosity and sensuality of the Greek character—the passionate desire to conceptualize things metaphysically. They didn't seem to be able to relax, the blasted Greeks! Incidentally it is a remark which the French often repeat today about the Americans, and it is always uttered in the same commiserating tone of voice as once the High Priest used. Yet the culture of Greece (so different from that of Egypt) springs directly from the Nile Valley—I could name a dozen top Greek thinkers or philosophers who were trained by Egyptians, like Plato, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, Democritos. And the 'tiresome children' certainly didn't waste their time, for when they got back home to their own bare islands the pure flower of Greek culture spread its magnificent wings in flights of pure magic to astonish and impregnate the Mediterranean. But just to hand the eternal compliment along they invented the word 'barbarians' for all those unfortunate savages who lived outside the magic circle of Greece, deprived of its culture. The barbarians of course were one day to produce Dante, Goethe, Bach, Shakespeare.
As I say the clue, then, is identification; for underneath the purely superficial aspects of apparent change the old tide-lines remain. The dullest travel poster hints at it. The fascinating thing is that Dickens characters still walk the London streets; that any game of village cricket will provide us with clues to the strange ritualistic mystery of the habits of the British. While if you really want to intuit the inner mystery of the island try watching the sun come up over Stonehenge. It may seem a dull and 'touristic' thing to do, but if you do it in the right spirit you find yourself walking those woollen secretive hills arm in arm with the Druids.
Taken in this way travel becomes a sort of science of intuitions which is of the greatest importance to everyone—but most of all to the artist who is always looking for nourishing soils in which to put down roots and create. Everyone finds his own 'correspondences' in this way—landscapes where you suddenly feel bounding with ideas, and others where half your soul falls asleep and the thought of pen and paper brings on nausea. It is here that the travel-writer stakes his claim, for writers each seem to have a personal landscape of the heart which beckons them. The whole Arabian world, for example, has never been better painted and framed than in the works of Freya Stark, whose delicate eye and insinuating slow-moving orchestrations of place and evocations of history have placed her in the front rank of travellers. Could one do better than Valley of the Assassins?
These ideas, which may seem a bit far-fetched to the modern reader, would not have troubled the men and women of the ancient world, for their notion of culture was one of psychic education, the education of the sensibility; ours is built upon a notion of mentation, the cramming of the skull with facts and pragmatic data which positively stifle the growth of the soul. Travel wouldn't have been necessary in the time (I am sure such a time really existed some time after the Stone Age) when there really was a world religion which made full allowance for the different dialects of the different races practising it: and which realized that the factor of variation is always inevitably the landscape and not the people. Nowadays such a psychic uniformity sounds like a dream; but already comparative anthropology and archaeology are establishing the truth of it. When we think about such formulations as 'World-Government' we always think of the matter politically, as groups of different people working upon an agreed agenda of sorts; a ten-point programme, or some such set of working propositions. The landscape always fools us, and I imagine always will. Simply because the same propositions don't mean the same in Greek, Chinese and French.
Another pointer worth thinking about is institutions; have you ever wondered why Catholicism, for example, can be such a different religion in different places? Ireland, Italy, Spain, Argentina—it is theologically the same, working on the same premises, but in each case it is subtly modified to suit the spirit of place. People have little to do with the matter except inasmuch as they themselves are reflections of their landscape. Of course there are places where you feel that the inhabitants are not really attending to and interpreting their landscape; whole peoples or nations sometimes get mixed up and start living at right angles to the land, so to speak, which gives the traveller a weird sense of alienation. I think some of the troubles which American artists talk about are not due to 'industrialization' or 'technocracy' but something rather simpler—people not attending to what the land is saying, not conforming to the hidden magnetic fields which the landscape is trying to communicate to the personality. It was not all nonsense what D. H. Lawrence had to say in his communion with the 'ghosts' in the New World. He was within an ace, I think, of making real contact with the old Indian cultures. Genius that he was, he carried too much intellectual baggage about him on his travels, too many preconceptions; and while the mirror he holds up to Mexico, Italy, England is a marvellous triumph of art, the image is often a bit out of focus. He couldn't hold or perhaps wouldn't hold the camera steady enough—he refused to use the tripod (first invented by the oracles in Greece!).
The traveller, too, has his own limitations, and it is doubtful if he is to be blamed. The flesh is frail. I have known sensitive and inquisitive men so disheartened by the sight of a Greek lavatory as to lose all sense of orientation and fly right back to High Street Clapham without waiting for the subtler intimations of the place to dawn on them. I have known people educated up to Ph.D. standard who were so completely unhinged by French plumbing that they could speak of nothing else. We are all of us unfair in this way. I know myself to be a rash, hasty and inconsiderate man, and while I am sitting here laying down the law about travel I feel I must confess that I also have some blind spots. I have never been fair to the Scots. In fact I have always been extremely unfair to them—and all because I arrived on my first visit to Scotland late on a Saturday evening. I do not know whether it is generally known that you can simply die of exposure and starvation in relatively civilized places like Inverness simply because the inhabitants are too religious to cut a sandwich or pour coffee? It sounds fantastic I know. Nevertheless it is true. The form of Sabbatarianism which the Scots have developed passes all understanding. Nay, it cries out for the strait-jacket. And sitting on a bench at Inverness Station in a borrowed deerstalker and plaid you rack your brains to remember the least pronouncement in the Old or New Testaments which might account for it. There is none—or else I have never spotted the reference. They appear to have made a sort of Moloch of Our Lord, and are too scared even to brush their teeth on the Sabbath. How can I be anything but unfair to them? And yet Scotland herself—the poetry, and the poverty and naked joyous insouciance of mountain life, you will find on every page of Burns's autobiographical papers. Clearly she is a queenly country and a wild mountainous mate for poets. Why have the Scots not caught on? What ails them in their craggy fastnesses? (But I expect I shall receive a hundred indignant letters from Americans who have adopted Scotland, have pierced her hard heart and discovered the landscape-mystery of her true soul. Nevertheless, I stand by what I say; and one day when I am rich I shall have a memorial plaque placed over that bench on Inverness Station platform—a plaque reading 'Kilroy was here—but oh so briefly'!) But I must not fail to add that I have always admired the magnificent evocations of Scots landscape in the books of Stevenson; they are only adventure tales, but the landscape comes shining through.
So that I imagine the traveller in each of us has a few blind spots due to some traumatic experience with an empty tea-urn or the room-on-the-landing. This cannot be helped. The great thing is to try and travel with the eyes of the spirit wide open, and not too much factual information. To tune in, without reverence, idly—but with real inward attention. It is to be had for the feeling, that mysterious sense of rapport, of identity with the ground. You can extract the essence of a place once you know how. If you just get as still as a needle you'll be there.
Excerpted from The Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader by Clint Willis. Copyright © 2004 Lawrence Durrell Estate. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
SPIRIT OF PLACE,
Landscape and Character,
Divisions upon Greek Ground,
Landscape with Olive Trees,
A Landmark Gone,
Oil for the Saint; Return to Corfu,
Of Paradise Terrestre,
The Little Summer of Saint Demetrius,
The Three Lost Cities,
How to Buy a House,
The Tree of Idleness,
The Vanishing Landmarks,
In Praise of Fanatics,
Laura, A Portrait of Avignon,
Across Secret Provence,